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August 03, 2009

Fleshing Out Flush Times

Blog cartoon 8-5-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Flush times aren't here yet, unless "flush" refers to how business-related enterprises have gone down the drain since the recession/depression began. But just this week there's news the recession/depression may have hit "rock bottom," and in a sign of the times, "rock bottom" connotes something good rather than the usual interpretation of that expression. 

So, lucky as we are to have "rock bottom" upon us, it's time to plan ahead. You never know, after all, when "rock bottom" will morph into business-is-a-bowl-of-cherries time. Most organizations, understandably, are still trying to swim against the downward flush, but some of you probably have your eye on what happens when the economy becomes more tolerable, and your best workers look elsewhere. First, do you think they'll look elsewhere?  That's the assumption, but I thought I should ask because I have a slightly more nuanced idea of what will happen.

The way my thinking goes is why would you look for something else after working hard and enduring misery through the recession?  Before looking for something else, the smartest of your workers (the ones you'd want to keep in light of their business savvy) will use their endured misery and recessionary contribution to the company as a bargaining chip. This could take two forms. 

In the first, the tired and disgusted worker who performed his heart out for one to two years of promotion-less salary freeze will limp into his manager's office to turn in an assignment or to deliver business-related news, and then, in a feigned-to-be-breezy aside, will say: "You know what I was thinking?  Just a crazy thought, really. But I thought I'd share anyway. I was wondering, with profits starting to get back to where they were before the recession, do you think the company would be open to re-introducing promotions and salary increases?  It would be great to have that promotion and salary increase we talked about a couple years ago."  

If the manager is equally savvy, she will fight for the promotion and raise—even if the salary and promotion freeze isn't over yet. "I know we're still under the promotion and salary freeze, but I really think we need to do something for Tom. He's done an outstanding job for us over the past two years, and it's been thankless since we weren't able to reward him. He brought it up with me the other day, and I'm afraid if we don't give him his overdue/much-deserved promotion and raise, he's going to look for something else. Mostly, though, I just want him to have it because it's something he's earned."

Another way the negotiation might ensue is worse for workforce managers. In this second scenario, the tired, under-appreciated-feeling worker (Tom) delivers the news to his boss that he was offered another job—one that pays $15,000 more a year than his current one. The manager knows it's possible to pay Tom that amount because, truth be told, he's been severely under-paid for the last couple of years, and the manager knows the only reason is they've been able to get away with it—until now, with the reappearance in the economic recovery of other opportunities."Hi there, Nancy, do you have a minute?" emboldened Tom will ask his boss. "Do you mind if I shut the door?  I have some exciting news to share: Existential Energies has offered me a job. I would be the Lead Controller of Existential Energies, and my pay would be $15,000 higher than I'm making here. But before I hand over my resignation, I want to give you the opportunity to make a counter-offer."

Well, the workforce manager in that second scenario is in a far less favorable position, of course. She no longer is going to get by with a $5,000 raise. The ante has been upped to at least (if not more than) $15,000 additional dollars. Wouldn't it have been easier to just push for the increase and promotion to begin with?  Unfortunately, the company's bureaucratic red tape probably will limit the manager's ability to make a timely competitive offer, and the company will lose a star performer. But look at what rival Existential Energies gets!

Other workers will just look for something else and take it, forgoing any loot available in a counter-offer deal because you've treated them so horribly that no amount of money your company could afford would be enough to make them stay. At a past job I experienced that, and it was funny. Funny to tell a nasty manager that I never considered (and wasn't open to) a counter-offer discussion because I no longer wanted to work with her. Period. Of course it was put in more mannerly terms, but the gist of it was the same.

But assuming your managers are still tolerable, maybe employees will be as smart as Tom, and try to negotiate. First, I have to ask you, how tolerable are your managers (when did you last roll out a tolerability assessment?) and how smart are your employees at the bargaining table when the bargaining chip is themselves?  Wouldn't it be ironic if they used the business acumen and negotiation skills training you provided them with to outwit your company's managers?  

Along with the delivery of overdue promotions and raises, your company can use the up-tick in business to head-off employee unrest. It can do this via learning and development. How about renewed or strengthened tuition reimbursement?  Or leadership development for a lucky 100 to 200 superior employees in a relaxing location that includes fun pastimes?  For the less spoiled of your workers, asking them what skill-set they most want to learn, and then creating a custom curriculum for them, also would be a big draw. The promotion and raise are unavoidably necessary, but the urgency of it, and the attitude employees bring to the negotiation table, can be positively shaped by whether and how the company takes the initiative to show them the opportunities that lie ahead if they stay put. 

That flushing sound your figurative hearing ability has picked up doesn't have to be a bad thing. If your company is smart, the flush will signal the elimination of bad management practices. Some of your best employees are still with you, but that doesn't mean they'll continue to go with the flow. 

What do you think the attitude of your top employees will be when the economy recovers?  How do you plan to compensate them for their hard work during the recession?  Do you think learning and development offerings will play a role in getting them to stay? 


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